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Posts Tagged ‘Tracking’

It is definitely autumn.  It hasn’t felt like we’ve had much of a summer this year, but the seasons are definitely turning.  The blackberries are in full flow, the leaves are starting to turn on the horse chestnut trees (always the first to get leaves and the first to lose them) and the evenings are drawing in.

Sadly, the badger watching season is coming to an end for me.  Badgers don’t hibernate, so they’ll be out and about all winter, but it is now pretty well dark when they emerge from the sett.  Fine for the badgers, not so fine for badger watching.  I may try and see if I can watch them using an artificial light – red light is not supposed to bother them very much – but I’m always wary of disturbing them.

Today I’ve been for a wander around the woods and fields.  All the summer crops have now been harvested, so everything is looking a bit bare.  No doubt the badgers are hard at work getting in their harvest, eating as much as they can and putting on as much weight as possible for the leaner months ahead.

Badger dung with elderberries

Badger dung with elderberries

The badger dung in one of the latrine sites was dark red and a mass of pips, a sign that at least one badger has been gorging itself on elderberries.  Apparently elderberries are edible for humans, but I’ve tried them and they aren’t very nice.  I’m happy to leave them to the badgers.

I visited the far end of the wood today in search of the neighboring badger setts that I am sure are there, based on my mapping of latrine sites and territories.  Sure enough, about 700m from the main sett I came across what looks very like a badger hole.  This fits in very nicely with my estimate of 350m for the radius of a badger territory.

Unfortunately the rain had washed out any tracks from the vicinity, but the hole looked badger-ish to me.  There were old dung pits nearby, and some fairly well-used paths.  Of course, the only proof would be to go there one evening and see if a badger comes out of it.

The interesting thing is that this is a single hole, compared to the dozen or so holes at the main sett.  There has been a fair amount written about subsidiary setts – setts connected by kinship to a main sett, so I wonder if this is an example.  To be honest, I’ve always found the literature on main, outlying and subsidiary setts a trifle confusing, but I’ve got a reason to go back and re-read it now.  I’ll also try and get down here one evening and see what happens.

The new badger sett

The new badger sett - note the spoil heap and paths

As I was sitting contemplating this new sett, a Chinese Water Deer wandered up.  These are small deer, about the size of a muntjac, but more graceful.  Their most distinctive feature is that they have two long ‘fangs’ or tusks on the upper jaw, which gives them a strange, vampire deer appearance.  My camouflage jacket was obviously working today because this one wandered to within about 15 feet of me.  Chinese Water Deer are less common than the other species around here.  Like so many unusual species they were introduced by the Duke of Bedford in Woburn and subsequently escaped.  Now it’s estimated that the UK has something like 10% of the total world population, so they have obviously become scarce in their native country.

Elsewhere, I’m still practising my tracking.  The field behind my house is great, as the sandy soil is always full of the tracks of rabbit, muntjac and roe deer.  This evening I came across what looked very much like badger tracks.  This in itself is not unusual, but they must have been made this afternoon, as the heavy rain this morning washed out all last night’s tracks.

I'd swear this is the forefoot of a badger - look at the claws - but from the freshness it was made this afternoon

Looks like the forepaw of a badger to me!

Does this mean that my local badger has taken to wandering around in the daytime, or have I misidentified the tracks?  There’s still more work for me to do on my tracking.  If nothing else, it’ll keep me occupied over the winter.

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Just to follow on from the last post, here’s another of the tracks I believe were made by a stoat.

I'm pretty sure it's a stoat track.  Scale in cm.

I'm pretty sure it's a stoat. Scale in cm.

This one was obviously made when the mud was very soft or even under water, as it lacks details of the claws etc. The shape, particularly of the rear pad, is very similar to the stoat tracks in the guidebooks. Of course, if anyone knows more, feel free to leave a comment.

Watch this space. I’ll see if I can get more after the next spell of wet weather. Shouldn’t have to wait too long…!

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As an antidote to my increasingly desparate attempts to watch badgers, I’ve spent the afternoon having a gentle stroll around the area, tracking wildlife and picking blackberries.

Roe Deer track

Roe Deer track

I’m really getting into tracking at the moment. As well as being a fascinating activity in it’s own right, it offers a window into the movements of all sorts of wildlife. I’m still very much a beginner at tracking, but I’m finding it very rewarding. Tracking, I suppose, is a bit like reading. I’m at the stage where I can recognise individual tracks, or words, and I’m just starting to put them together into full sentences. A lot of the skill in tracking comes from looking, really looking, at the little details, and when you start to notice these, the picture starts to come into focus. A walk in the country becomes almost like reading a book of what the animals have been up to.

Let me give you an example. I’ve been able to recognise badger tracks for years, but it’s only in the last couple of weeks that I realised that a badger regularly uses the path down the field behind my house. It walks down the path at the start of the night, and walks back up the path some time later on. It’s an adult badger, and it doesn’t run, it walks at a normal badger pace. I’ve never seen this badger, but I’ve tracked it enough times to know its routine.

Assorted tracks in the mud

Assorted tracks in the mud

The soil in the fields behind my house varies from clay at the bottom of the hill to pure sand at the top, so it’s an excellent place to learn about tracking. The clay soil dries hard, so the animals leave very little trace, but where it is damp it gives very clear prints. Today was dry, but there were pools of mud in the ruts left by a tractor. I spent a happy twenty minutes sitting looking at these.

It may seem like just a patch of mud, but if you spend time really looking, there is a story there waiting to be told – a time capsule of the comings and goings of the wildlife over the last 24 hours. In this one little patch there were the tracks of two Roe deer, several muntjac, a fox, and what I think is a stoat.

Readers of the blog may be aware of my long-standing desire to watch stoats in this area, and my utter lack of success in doing so. One of the reasons that I am so interested in tracking is because it may help me to get closer to these elusive animals, help me to understand the habits better and ultimately to allow me to watch them going about their business.

Like I say, I’m still a beginner. There are lots of unawswered questions still. Where did the stoat go after hopping through the mud? Where does the badger come from before walking down the field? The more I learn, the more I’ll be able to answer these. In the meantime though, tracking makes a walk in the country much more enjoyable, and as the evenings start to close in and it gets too dark for badger watching, I’ll have a new excuse to wander about the field and hedgerows at the weekends.

Possible stoat track

Possible stoat track

For anyone interested in tracking (and I’d recommend it as a pastime to everyone who is interested in wildlife) have a look at Pablo’s tracking pages here. This is what got me started on the whole thing.

I spent a happy couple of hours strolling about, looking at tracks, watching the buzzards soaring overhead and picking blackberries. The blackberries seem very prolific this year, and in a couple of hours yesterday and today I’ve picked about three kilos – enough for another serious jam-making session.

A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon stroll. I just goes to show what there is to be discovered outdoors if you’re willing to go and look for it.

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I seem to have developed an unhealthy interest in badger dung.

Let me explain. When I first started watching badgers, I made a conscious decision to stick with one sett and focus on that. There are at least two, possibly three, other setts that I know of (or strongly suspect) in the local area, although I don’t know their exact locations. I know they are there because I’ve seen badgers on the roads or other signs, and they’re too far off to be ‘my’ badgers.

I decided to stick with the one sett because I wanted to really get to know one clan of badgers. Only by fully understanding how this sett works as a social group could I learn about the details of badger behaviour. Jumping from one sett to another and watching different groups of badgers would be fun, but I’ve always felt that it would dilute my understanding.

I’ve reached the point now though where I want to understand how ‘my’ sett fits into the bigger picture of setts in the area – how they interact, movement between setts and so on. Hence I’ve just spent an afternoon looking for badger dung.

Badgers are territorial. Each family or clan controls its own territory, marking it out as its own property. This marking is most visibly done with dung. Badgers are quite fastidious, and they tend to deposit their dung in specific ‘latrine sites’, typically located on the boundaries of their territory. If you can locate these sites, you can map the boundary points and hence the area controlled by a particular sett.

Badger latrine site

Badger latrine site

I spent about three hours wandering up and down the footpaths around the wood, and I’ve mapped out six latrine sites to the east, south west, west and north east of the sett. The distance from these the sett is 300 to 400 metres, with one outlier in the wheat field 600 metres away. This suggests that my badgers are controlling the territory for a radius of 300-400m from their sett.

Of course, this is probably a gross oversimplification. It is most unlikely that the badgers have a perfectly circular territory. Territory size is governed by availability of resources, so it is interesting to note that the latrine sites enclosed an area of woodland (which provides cover and security), plus significant areas of pasture and cereal fields (which provide food). It seems that my badgers are pretty well organised here.

If the latrine sites do represent a boundary between badger territories, this suggests that the neighbouring setts will be something in the order of 600m away, in other words an equal distance from the boundary, assuming the availability of resources is similar. This distance is somewhat higher that the 350m quoted by Neal and Cheeseman, but they were studying badgers in the Cotswolds where resources are likely to be more abundant, and so territories smaller.

So there you have it. An afternoon of looking for dung has allowed my to predict (albeit very roughly) the size of the badgers’ territory and the possible location of neighbouring setts. I’ll carry on working on this idea and see if I can add more detail in the future.

Something else I intend to do more of in the future is tracking. I’ve become intrigued by the idea of tracking mammals, partly as an activity in its own right, but partly also as a way of finding out more about their movements and locations. This could be particularly useful for the rare and shy species, as I can find out what they have been doing without having to be there at the time.

I’ve bought a book on tracking and I’m reading through it at the moment, but I’ve already discovered that it is more difficult than it looks. It rained heavily this morning so any tracks outside the wood have been washed out, and inside the wood the patches of ‘printable’ ground are few and far between. The best I could do was to find a few confused deer tracks (the tracks were confused, not the deer!) and the odd partial badger print.

These badger prints were the closest I got to the stripeys all evening. I watched the eastern side of the sett from 7.00pm to 8.40pm without seeing so much as a black and white nose. They may have come out of another entrance without me being able to see them, as the view is limited on this side of the sett. Perhaps they’re playing more tricks on me. Either way, no pictures of badgers for this post!

It’s been a good day though. Like I said, there’s enough to learn about badgers to keep you busy for years!

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